By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Before Eastlake, in places where a school was faltering or a town hungered for an economic boost, Wilkerson and family had similarly appeared with the same kind of promise of a brighter day. But those promises of renewed hope, which usually center around an educational institution, just never seem to work out for Wilkerson. After he decided to save the 142-year-old Madison Business College, and it abruptly closed amid a Wisconsin Justice Department investigation and questions about Wilkerson's administrative decisions, an acerbic Wisconsin State Journal editorial compared Wilkerson's résumé to Dr. Jack Kervorkian's patient list and said, "It takes a special talent to bring down a 142-year-old institution in a matter of months."
Since Wilkerson turned his attention to Dallas, the money-strapped but reportedly solvent little church and Christian school have been plagued with unprecedented financial, staff and morale problems. Many longtime staff and faculty left while financial difficulties and disagreements with Wilkerson mounted. Wilkerson pledges to keep the school running, but now he has a contract for the sale of the building to pay off bills, and he plans to move the school. Many of those familiar with the state of the school say they are convinced Wilkerson is bound for failure once again.
"I really like Charles Wilkerson. He's very charismatic. I bought into his idea of education. That's the one thing that kept me there," says Larry Wilson, Eastlake's former school administrator. "Now, I would not believe Charles Wilkerson if he told me hello."
Wilkerson is often described by those who meet him as impressive and Christ-like. Just like at Eastlake in the fall of 2000, Wilkerson had appeared in different places with grand visions and plenty of cash.
In 1993, when Wilkerson arrived in the small town of Sunset, Louisiana, town officials welcomed him, though Wilkerson's business dealings before Sunset were not entirely successful. In the 1980s, Wilkerson was accused of misleading his partners in a deal for a cable network that eventually went bankrupt. Wilkerson concedes the company went bankrupt but says, contrary to an extensive newspaper report, it turned out for the best.
"We went through the bankruptcy, and just about every one of the investors invested with me again, and we got started again," Wilkerson says. "If you read those articles, it talks about one guy that was unhappy with me."
The Minneapolis Star Tribune did not report it quite that way in 1982.
"The Rev. Charles Wilkerson came to the Twin Cities from North Dakota in March 1980 with a visionary plan for a Christian television network and a knack for persuading others to buy into it.
"By July 1980, the 31-year-old pastor of Southern Baptist Church in Bloomington had launched Christian Media Network (CMN), a cable television alternative for Christian viewers sick of the sex and violence on commercial networks and weary of the money-soliciting preachers common on other religious broadcasts.
"But 19 months later, CMN was bankrupt and Wilkerson was preparing to leave town," one part of the article said. It reported that investors were trying to recover $1.6 million.
When Wilkerson came to Sunset, he appeared to be well-equipped to head a big university expansion. But his degrees from Louisiana Christian University were dubious. Wilkerson reported in writing to the Louisiana Board of Regents in 1995 that he obtained those degrees from Louisiana Christian University in Lake Charles, an unaccredited private university that eventually made Wilkerson president. At the time, Louisiana was rife with paper colleges and universities, institutions run from post office boxes and offering mail-order degrees. Louisiana lawmakers have since tightened state oversight in an effort to halt those kinds of operations from calling themselves colleges and universities, says John Kay, assistant commissioner for research and data analysis for the Louisiana Board of Regents.
Wilkerson told the state that as president of Louisiana Christian University, he was moving his school to the economically depressed city of Sunset. A newspaper article printed at the time lavished praise on Wilkerson and talked about what a miraculous boost a university would bring. The Times of Acadiana reported that Wilkerson hoped to turn the city's deteriorating old high school into a school of high moral standards for Louisiana Christian University and its 400 students.
The city donated the high school property to the project, and Wilkerson offered his visions and talents as administrator.
Just five months later, the same newspaper, a weekly newsmagazine in Shreveport, reported that Wilkerson and members of his family who had worked at the university had left, leaving behind questions, frustrations and a pile of debt. Enrollment was not close to the 400 students Wilkerson promised. Wilkerson says he left to become the pastor of a church in nearby Church Point. The school subsequently went bankrupt and closed with nearly $600,000 in debt. Sunset sued the school to get back its high school property.
"When I left Sunset there were no bills left unpaid," Wilkerson says.
David Prell, who took over as interim president after Wilkerson left, does not agree with that statement or with Wilkerson's version of events concerning Louisiana Christian University at Sunset. Prell says Wilkerson exaggerated enrollment and left Louisiana Christian University when an application for accreditation that included verification of academic credentials by a recognized agency was being processed.